Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The Fundamentals of Polity
It's the kind of word that gets bandied about a bunch in oldline denominational circles, to describe the way we approach our lives together. These are the systems and structures of our organizational life, the sinews and tendons of our decision-making.
As a Presbyterian, I've been doing the Presbyterian thing my whole life, and the professional Presbyterian thing for almost 17 years, if you count time preparing for ministry. I'll often see Presbyterians discussing Presbyterian identity as woven up on our processes, procedures, and protocols, in the patterns of exchange that are part of our strange dances and secret codes.
It is, on the one level. The language of our tribe is Robert's Rules of Order, and our conversations and conflict revolve around a peculiar alphanumeric shorthand. G.14. Fourteen F. 27B/6. These are part of what makes us so...special.
But is it really what we're about? It is the heart of why we do what we do? I found myself wondering this recently, as I watched from social-media-afar as a gathering of hep young denominational types gathered to reflect on the future of "church." There was much talk amongst the whippersnappers about cutting edge stuff, but also a bunch of chatter around the importance of our...um..."unique"...way of doing church.
I found myself wondering that again, as my Presbytery worked our way through some difficult stuff this last week. We did pretty well, as these conversations go, but every once in a while we sorta trucked through some procedural things I'd come to expect. Motions were not made. Seconds were not asked for. The steps of the dance were blurred, and we rolled and tumbled along together.
And yet it made little difference. Decisions were made, and no-one went storming off into the night or howled gloating victory at their vanquished foes. It worked. By "worked," I mean: it seemed not to impede our sharing grace with one another, even in significant disagreement.
How much does "polity" matter?
It does, of course, because it helps us get stuff done. And it doesn't, not at all, because it's not fundamental to our being "church."
The question, of course, has to do with essentials. Where is that relation that matters, that is most vital to spiritually healthy interaction? What is the fundamental unit of analysis, if we're trying to live into the Kingdom of God that Jesus was so on about?
It is not our organizational chart. It is not, agony though this may be, our meticulously overthought process.
As familiar as our pattern of being is, and as comfortingly as that structure might be, I just can't bring myself to see it as central. It is not the thing I hold to most fiercely. The organizational frameworks and structures that overarch our lives together are meaningful only in so far as they help us do that heart of our faith. That's true no matter what our structure might be.
Congregational? Presbyterian? Episcopal? Oldline? Nondenom? Giant corporate church with twenty pastors and an IT department? Tiny family church with twenty in the pews of their little country church?
It matters not, as St. Yoda would have put it.
What matters most is how the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth shape our integrity as persons, and then...from that foundation...how we relate to every other person we encounter, whoever they may be. Do we understand ourselves as radically, essentially committed to doing what Jesus taught all of his disciples to do and live? Does our "polity" help us be disciples together?
Does it shape how I relate to you? Does it help me love you, as Jesus requires?
That, it seems, is the fundamental thing, the most basic reality.